Friday, May 11, 2012

The Characteristics of a Distinctive "Philokalic" Spirituality

From all appearances the Philokalia seems like a mere collection of texts written by 36 different authors.  Indeed, Kallistos Ware reminds us, the word Philokalia can signify “a love what is beautiful and good, love for God as the source of all things beautiful.”  But, he continues, it can also simply mean “anthology”.  When a person picks up the Philokalia, the second meaning seems to be the dominant one.  Ware states: “The different texts are given simply in chronological order, with no attempt at systematic classification, no grouping of topics, and no clear indication which writings are considered suitable for ‘beginners’ and which for the more ‘advanced.’”  But when we begin to look deeper, dominant motifs and master themes emerge which, Ware states, “give to the Philokalia a coherent unity and a definite purpose.”  

According to Ware, the first theme and general scope of the Philokalia is Inner Action.  The Philokalia is concerned with the interior life.  It is not concerned with bodily asceticism, although this of course is discussed and a necessary part of the spiritual life, but rather with “guarding the intellect.”  “What it reveals to us, says St. Nikodimos in his preface, is ‘the kingdom of God that is within you,  . . . the treasure hidden in the field of the heart.’”  This kingdom within is characterized by two fundamental virtues - nepsis and hesychia.  Nepsis “is a term denoting sobriety, temperance, lucidity and above all vigilance and watchfulness.”  Hesychia “signifies not so much exterior silence as inner stillness of heart.”  These two virtues, which we will discuss further in later posts, foster greater freedom from the thoughts and fantasies often associated with our passions and give rise to pure prayer free of all images and discursive thought.  

The second theme, according to Ware, describes the basic aim of the Philokalia: Deification or theosis - a direct, transforming union with God.  St. Nikodimos in the first sentence of his preface to the Philokalia writes: “God, the blessed nature, perfection that is more than perfect, the creative principle of all that is good and beautiful, Himself transcending all goodness and all beauty, in His supremely divine plan preordained from all eternity the deification of humankind.”  Simply put, the supreme end of the spiritual life is to be one with God through having his image and likeness perfected within us.  

The third and final theme discussed by Ware is the means of this Deification: the Continual Invocation of the Holy Name.  The grace bestowed on us at baptism is obscured by our sin and through being immersed in worldly cares and controlled by our passions.  Once again in the preface to the Philokalia, Nikodimos tells us how this grace can be reactivated: “The Spirit. . . revealed to the Fathers a method that is truly wonderful . . .whereby grace can be rediscovered.  This was to pray continually to our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, not simply to pray with the intellect and the lips alone; . . . but to turn the whole intellect towards the inner self, which is a marvelous experience; and so inwardly, within the very depths of the heart, to invoke the all-holy Name of the Lord and to implore mercy from Him, concentrating our attention solely on the bare words of the prayer, not allowing anything else whatever to gain entry from within or from without, but keeping the mind totally free from all forms and colors.”  When we engage in this spiritual work and live in accord with the commandments then we begin to “return to the perfect grace of the Spirit that was bestowed upon us in the beginning through Baptism.”  

As we begin our study of the Philokalia at the Oratory, and in later posts we will be discussing in depth these and approximately 20 other related themes of “philokalic” spirituality and examine how these themes are developed by particular writers.    

Quotes from, “The inner unity of the Philokalia and its influence in East and West” by Kallistos Ware, pp. 6-10.  Edit. Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, Athens 2004. 

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